If there’s anything that I’ve learned in my time working as a producer, it’s that this is a business with layers…
At the bottom, you’ve got your dreamers (and we are all dreamers…you have to be!).
As a dreamer, you are on the outside looking in and working your butt off for your one big shot. It’s an incredible time of artistic discovery because this is where you put in the work to fortify your craft. You find your dreamers answering phones at agencies, toiling on draft after draft of a script that may never be read, or looking for that first round of fundraising that may never come. It’s an easy time to sigh and think, “If only the right person would read my script, then everything would change. All I need is a seat at the table.” Dreamers just want a shot.
In the middle, you’ve got your up and comers.
These are people that have had enough success to earn the right to be taken seriously. Perhaps you’ve sold a script or gotten representation at a big agency. Maybe you had a script on the Blacklist or finally got moved off of desk duty after three years to become a creative executive. These people finally have a seat at the table. They’ve achieved what they’d been chasing as dreamers and guess what…now they’ve got a whole new set of issues to deal with! In the middle, you have access for your ideas to be heard by the right people (one hurdle out of the way) but you learn how important and difficult the execution of those ideas is (and how many more hurdles there really are). Up and comers are looking for big wins to get to the next level.
On the top end, you have your decision makers.
These are people that have had sustained success in the business to the point that they have real access to financing, talent, and the means of distribution. They’ve earned green light authority and the right to say yes. Getting to this point takes years of hard work and a lot of strategic foresight. Just because someone has the ability to say yes, it doesn’t mean that it’s an easy decision. Films are massive, risky projects with huge financial implications. Every time a decision maker green-lights a project, their career is on the line. They don’t say yes lightly and neither would you. Decision makers are thinking about how to maintain their control and status so they can keep producing content. They answer to the all-powerful audience.
These are broad buckets and of course, everyone has a unique situation, so why do I bring these layers up and how does it relate to an independent producer’s process?
In my blog about making your own luck, I wrote about the importance of getting out of your own head. I’ve found that by thinking about layers and who sits where, it helps me to understand how my potential collaborators evaluate opportunities and why they make certain decisions.
The process of getting a film produced is really hard.
To do so, you need a huge group of people from every layer to cooperate with you. They need to become as excited about your idea as you are. It also needs to make sense for them as much as it makes sense for you. This is why it’s naïve to think that someone is going to pull your script out of thin air and suddenly put it into production… it’s got to work its way through the layers of the business and attach a critical mass of excited collaborators (aka a “package” that includes actors, a director, financier, distributor, producing partner, etc.). It needs to become undeniable. Only then will it get its green light.
I’ve been learning this lesson more and more as I’ve been out with a new pitch for a story that I think is undeniable. I believe in it with everything I’ve got and I won’t stop until I see it on screen. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t been told no a lot, sometimes after really promising meetings.
It can be a bit disarming when people don’t share the same vision as you do, but it is part of the process. If you believe in your project, you won’t mind being told no and you won’t question yourself or your creative taste, you’ll simply press on. If you aren’t there with your own project, you should either find a new one or keep working until you know that you can stand behind it no matter what. It’s a long road.
One of my mentors once told me with regard to pitching to “get ready because you’ll probably be told no about 90 times before you get that one big yes.” At the end of the day, that one yes is all that matters.
The producer’s process is like a giant game of Chutes and Ladders.
You take two steps forward only to take one step back. Perhaps you had interest from an actress but her schedule won’t align… maybe you had a director attached but a fully financed film stole them away…maybe you had funding lined up until your investor put a little too much money into the wrong stock…and all the while you have to hold the pieces to the puzzle you do have together and keep going.
It can be frustrating, but if you keep pressing forward you will find the right partners. This is why it can take years to will a project into production. Good producers know this and only choose projects that they are willing to get punched in the mouth for over and over again. At the end of the day, producing is a game of finding a good idea and persisting through the strength of your relationships.
Screenwriting can be lonely, painful, and frustrating, and it’s important for producers to understand how hard it is to write a great script. Screenwriters will also benefit from being emotionally intelligent about the difficulty of the producer’s process and the unique layers of the business. At the very least, a little bit of shared empathy will help you to understand why a producer or exec might be passing on your good idea or why it’s taking so darn long to see any real progress.
There is a lot in this business that is outside of your control, but you can control the work you put in, your belief in your material, and your determination to press on. Keep going and you’ll always have a shot at success. At least that’s my motto.
For my next blog, I’d love to hear about what topics you’d like covered. Feel free to Tweet to me at @DavidMKaufmann with any thoughts or suggestions.
David Kaufmann is an independent film and television producer living in Los Angeles. He began his career as an NBC Page at Saturday Night Live. He spent over nine years handling film and television licensing and development at Major League Baseball where he helped create critically acclaimed films like Moneyball and 42. He has an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Richmond and holds an MBA from NYU Stern with a focus on the media business and creative producing. He is an active member of the Producers Guild of America. For more on David, please visit his IMDB or LinkedIn.